The Rambling Writer Returns to Greece, Part 17: A Voyage to Naxos, Home of Dionysos

Following the voyage of mythical Ariadne, we ply the “wine-dark sea” to the island of Naxos, where she met and married Dionysos, god of wine and ecstatic revelry.

NOTE: Since my 4-month backpacking trip around Greece too many years ago, I had been longing to return to this magical land of myth, history, and dramatic landscapes. I recently made a fabulous 3-week return trip there, to research additional settings for my novel-in-progress, THE ARIADNE DISCONNECT. My first post in the new series, on September 30, gives an overview of my rambles with my husband Thor from Athens to the islands of Rhodes, Santorini, and Naxos, and finally a pilgrimage to the ancient center of the world at Delphi.

I’ll admit it– in the course of researching and writing the next Ariadne novel, I’ve become obsessed with Dionysos. And I needed to visit Naxos, where important scenes in the novel take place. It’s the island where Greek-hero Theseus abandoned the original Ariadne. She had saved his butt by revealing the secret of the labyrinth on Crete, along with providing a thread so he could find his way out after slaying the bull-headed Minotaur. But Ariadne came out ahead in the deal when Dionysos fell for her on his summer stomping-grounds of Naxos. What’s not to love about a gorgeous Greek god who gave humanity the gift of wine and wild parties with maenads and satyrs? According to legend, the happy couple had numerous children, and when Ariadne died, Dionysos went to the underworld to retrieve her and make her one of the Olympian gods (or, alternatively, placed her as a crown of stars in the heavens).

Here (borrowed from Wikipedia) is a 4th-century B.C. bronze of the blissful pair:

Strangely, as I delve deeper into the various versions of these ancient tales, I discover that many details in the first Ariadne novel and the one in progress are described in these stories, although I wasn’t consciously aware of some of the parallels. As the ancients summoned the Muse when recounting their epic tales, I guess I was doing the same: “Sing, Goddess, the tale of….”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. In last week’s blog (#16), Thor and I were boarding the ferry to leave the island of Santorini:

As you can see, we weren’t the only ones visiting these fabulous Aegean islands. Traveling by boat is the best way to appreciate the many rocky islands scattered across the sea of startling deep purple-blue, feel the wind, and smell the salt air.

Among the giant luxury liners and ferries, fishing boats still work the waters off Naxos.

Naturally, after checking into our hotel near the Medieval core of Naxos Town, the first thing Thor and I did was cool off with a refreshing swim. We couldn’t resist the lure of those luminous blue waters, even if it was a bit windy.

The next morning, we set off to visit the nearby site of the Temple of Dionysos.

Like many of the excavated sites in Greece (too many to count!), what remains here is mostly footings, with a few marble column fragments replaced upright, and (on the left above) a reproduced Ionic column with curled capital on top. The site was dedicated to Dionysos from very early times, as he is one of the oldest gods from the Mediterranean area, probably originating in Egypt and pre-Minoan Crete.  As his images and worship evolved with the ages, so the temples on this same site evolved from just a marble basin for offerings, to simple structures, to the more elaborate Hellenic-era marble temple now partially restored. And, as often happened, the site was later co-opted for a Christian church. This series of informational plaques gives more details for those interested:

Since Dionysos gave the first grape vines and wine to humanity, it was fitting that we found these vines growing on the site:

The images of Dionysos reveal that he was something of a shape-shifter, though always associated with enthusiasmos, the elevated state enjoyed by his devotees who imbibed his wine, thought by recent researchers to have been laced with psychoactive herbs or mushrooms. The symposia gatherings of the male elite in Classical Greece may have been similarly inspired by such enhanced wine that could have given rise to their expansive philosophical explorations, and perhaps even the concept of fledgling democracy. One important aspect of the Dionysian rituals was the inclusion of all members of society, from slaves to lower classes to women who otherwise had little voice, so Dionysos could be considered the first proponent of democracy.

Here, in a Classic-style representation in the Athens Archaeological Museum (this marble statue is dated around 170 A.D., but reproduces Classic images), Dionysos is partying with his common companions of a satyr and Pan. He’s crowned with grapes and vines, and holds a rhyton drinking vessel in the shape of a panther (one of his emblematic animals). He is presented as a rather androgynous young man, acknowledging the traditional concept of a god who embodied characteristics of both male and female. (There is a long tradition of a hermaphroditic god/dess in the Mediterranean.) This combination of features emphasizes his role also as a fertility figure.)

A very different representation that we saw in the Rhodes museum shows him as a mature, bearded man. This statue was thought to have shown him holding his traditional thyrsos, a phallic staff topped by a pine cone.


Other sacred animals associated with Dionysos were dolphins and serpents, as in this mosaic in the Rhodes museum, showing a winged god riding dolphins, with serpents in his hair a la Medusa:

Appropriately, near the site were some of his other special companions, the ubiquitous goats of Greece, who always charm with their mischievous, playful personalities. (If these hadn’t been hobbled, they would have been climbing and romping all over the site.)

As goats and humans can’t live on grapes and wine alone, the site also boasted an ancient, restored well for water.

The design is timeless. Later we saw an almost identical modern-era well on a hill above the temple site:

A last message from the temple of Dionysos — if only I could read it!

I’ll close with a kylix drinking vessel showing the iconic image of Dionysos on a pirate ship, when he thwarted a kidnapping attempt by turning the crew members into dolphins as vines sprouted from the ship’s mast. We’ll be back next week with more about Naxos. Meanwhile, let’s raise our cups to Dionysos: “Chairete!” Rejoice!


You will now find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here every Saturday. Sara’s latest novel from Book View Cafe is available in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection.  It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?”  The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction. Sara has recently returned from a research trip in Greece and is back at work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect. Sign up for her quarterly email newsletter at



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